Why slums breed crime?


Masud Khabeki


All Slums typically begin at the outskirts of a city. With the passage of time, the city may grow and expand past the original slums, enclosing the slums inside the urban perimeter. Resultantly, new slums sprout at the new boundaries of the expanding city, thereby creating an urban sprawl mix of formal settlements, industry, retail zones and without any proper infrastructure and planning. This makes the original slums valuable property, densely populated with many conveniences attractive to the poor. Noticeably, the lack of affordable low-cost housing and poor planning encourages the supply side of slums. The large number of slum dwellers in every city indicates a deficiency of practical housing policy in Pakistan.

At their start, slums are typically located in least desirable lands near the city having no clear land title, sometimes at the bottom of flood prone valleys and close to some natural water source, often next to railway tracks and on other shunned undesirable locations. These strategies shield slums from the risk of being noticed and removed when they are small and most vulnerable to local government officials. Established old slums in Pakistan, surrounded by the formal city infrastructure, cannot expand horizontally, therefore, they are growing vertically by stacking additional rooms, sometimes for a growing family and sometimes as a source of rent from new arrivals in slums. Hence, overcrowding has become the main characteristic of slums along many associated problems like clean drinking water, cleaning and sanitation etc. Usually, slums name themselves after founders of political parties, locally respected historical figures, current politicians or politician’s spouse to garner political backing against eviction. These characteristics had mad slums the places of cruelty and violence, but equally at the same time are places of solidarity, tenderness and hope. Although high levels of crime may occur in many informal settlements, the popular representation of life in slums often fails to acknowledge the deeper causes of insecurity and violence. There is always a debate that the scholars, media and authorities had never distinguish between the conditions of slum dweller’s lives and their response to those conditions. There is a popular prejudice and fear against slums and slum residents, thereby criminalizing the urban poor without acknowledging the extreme inequality, poverty and disenfranchisement that sows the seeds of violence and social disorder among them. A narrative had developed that the slums are centers of crime and are considered as havens for criminals. Resultantly, this argument has become a commonplace excuse for governments and especially by the law enforcement agencies and service providers to deal with the consequences of urban poverty whilst ignoring its causes.

Considering the plight of slum dwellers, we can notice that due to lack of skills and education as well as competitive job markets for the youth residing in slums, many dwellers face high rates of unemployment. The limit of job opportunities causes many of them to employ themselves in the informal economy like street vending, household enterprises, product assembly and packaging, making garlands and embroideries, domestic work, shoe polishing or repair, driving chingchi or rickshaws, construction workers or manually driven logistics, and handicrafts production. In some slums, people sort and recycle trash of different kinds (from household garbage to electronics) for a living – selling either the odd usable goods or stripping broken goods for parts or raw materials. Many of the dwellers are also engaged in the illicit trade of weapons & drug trafficking, prostitution and gambling. Typically, these licit and informal economies require the poor to regularly pay a bribe to local municipality officials and police.

Scholars suggest that crime is one of the main concerns in slums. Empirical data suggest crime rates are higher in slums than in non-slums. In Nairobi slums, one fourth of all teenage girls are raped each year. In Venezuela, officials have sent in the military to control slum criminal violence involved with drugs and weapons. Crime has become one of the symptoms of slum dwelling, in other words slums consist of more victims than criminals. Consequently, slums have become the epicenter of illicit economy – such as drug & weapon trafficking, brewing, prostitution and gambling and often in such circumstance, multiple gangs fight for control over revenue. Our universities must encourage students to conduct research on the issues of slums including crime and criminality, health and safety, vulnerability of women and children, sanitation and education, and must explore the methodologies to provide civic facilities to the people who are in dire need of support as the situation is worsening with the passage of time.

Slums crime rate provide us an opportunity to correlate it with insufficient law enforcement and inadequate public policing. In main cities of developing countries like Pakistan, law enforcement lags behind urban growth and slum expansion. Often police cannot reduce crime because crime prevention system become inefficient due to ineffective city planning and governance. Leads and information intelligence from slums are rare, streets are narrow and a potential death traps to patrol, and many in the slum community have an inherent distrust of authorities from fear ranging from eviction to collection on unpaid utility bills to general law and order. Lack of formal recognition by the governments also leads to few formal policing and public justice institutions in slums.

The worst victims of crime in slums are women and children as they are at greater risk of physical and sexual violence. Factors such as unemployment that lead to insufficient resources in the household can increase marital stress and therefore exacerbate domestic violence. Slums are often non-secured areas and women often risk sexual violence when they walk alone in slums late at night. Violence against women and women’s security in slums emerge as recurrent issues. Another prevalent form of violence in slums is armed violence (gun violence). It leads to killings and the emergence of criminal gangs. Gang and drug wars are endemic in almost all slums across the country. The police sometimes participate in this gang-based violence as well by picking up some offenders and by putting them in jail.

Cohen as well as Merton theorized that the cycle of slum violence does not mean slums are inevitably criminogenic, rather in some cases it is frustration against life in slum, and a consequence of denial of opportunity to slum residents to leave the slum. Further, crime rates are not uniformly high in world’s slums, the highest crime rates in slums are seen where illicit economy – such as drug trafficking, brewing, prostitution and gambling – is strong and multiple gangs are fighting for control. Slum dwellers usually experience a high rate of disease. Diseases that have been reported in slums include polio, cholera, HIV/AIDS, measles, malaria, dengue, typhoid, drug resistant tuberculosis, and other epidemics. According to a study in Nairobi’s slums, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis attributed to about 50% of the mortality burden. The slums of West African nations such as Liberia were crippled by as well as contributed to the outbreak and spread of Ebola in 2014.

Factors that have been attributed to a higher rate of crime and disease transmission in slums include high population densities, poor living conditions, low vaccination rates, insufficient crime and health-related data, inadequate civic facilities and policing. Slums are considered as the difficult places to enforce law and order and emerged as a major concern for the criminal justice system. The slums have become a potential breeding grounds of criminals not only for the entire city, the nation, but for the global community.

Our authorities must start planning for slum clearances or to improve the lives of slum dwellers. There are many examples across the world to follow as the authorities have successfully transformed such places. For example, a propaganda poster linking slum to violence, used by US Housing Authority in the 1940s. City governments in the USA created many such propaganda posters and launched a media campaign to gain citizen support for slum clearance and planned public housing.


Masud Khabeki is an adjunct professor criminology at Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi